Prairie Home

Illinois Times stories, 2006 to 2008

Killer Reporting

J.J. Maloney traded a knife for a pen, swapping a life of crime for a career in journalism.

copyright 2021 by C.D. Stelzer

An earlier version of this story appeared in the St. Louis Journalism review in 2008 and Focus/midwest magazine in 2010.

He chain-smoked. The brand varied with the decade: L&Ms or, later, Marlboro Lights. In prison he preferred Camels, when he could afford them. Otherwise, he rolled his own from pouches of Ozark-brand tobacco, manufactured and distributed for free at the Missouri Penitentiary. It’s the smoking that eventually killed him. By then, most of his running buddies from the joint were long dead, victims, for the most part, of their own malevolent ways.

That J.J. Maloney survived is remarkable. But his rise from convicted murderer to award-winning investigative reporter for the Kansas City Star is a feat unparalleled in the annals of American journalism. Maloney joined the newspaper’s staff after being paroled in 1972. At the time of his release, he had served 13 years of a life sentence for killing a South St. Louis confectionery owner during an attempted robbery. Maloney was 19 years old when he committed the crime.

Kevin Horrigan, a cub reporter at the Star in 1973, remembers Maloney as an affable colleague but one who stood apart. “There was just something there, and it didn’t fit in with everybody else,” says Horrigan, now an editorial writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “It was like he was from another planet. He was one of those guys who was constantly fidgeting, or his knee was pounding up and down. Given where he’d come from, it’s easy to figure out why.”

Maloney’s prison record listed him as 5-foot-9 and 145 pounds. He was not from another planet, but he was from another time. When he entered prison, Dwight Eisenhower was president; when he came out, the Watergate burglary had been committed.

Maloney owed his freedom to Thorpe Menn, the Star’s literary editor, who had supported his parole and helped him get his job at the newspaper. Maloney had garnered the editor’s attention in 1961 through a poem he had submitted to the Star, which then printed verse on its editorial page each day. Maloney’s formal education had ended in the ninth grade, but Menn recognized raw talent when he saw it. He rejected Maloney’s poem but continued to correspond, providing him with professional advice and personal guidance. Maloney thought of Menn as the father he never had.

The only thing his real father ever gave him was his name. Joseph John Maloney Sr., a shoemaker by trade, walked out of his son’s life in 1943, when he was 3 years old. A year after his parents divorced, a hit-and-run driver killed his brother, Bobby. After his mother suffered a nervous breakdown, the court remanded him to the custody of the St. Joseph’s Catholic home for boys in St. Louis, where he stayed for nearly a year.

By the time Maloney returned home, his mother had remarried. His stepfather, Julius “Dutch” Gruender, an ex-con, became Maloney’s less-than-sterling guardian. Gruender, a housepainter, had a string of arrests and convictions for car theft and burglary dating back to 1926. At the time of his marriage to Maloney’s mother, he had only been out of the Missouri Penitentiary for a year.

While in prison, Gruender met and befriended Elmer “Dutch” Dowling and Isidore Londe, lieutenants of East St. Louis mob boss Frank “Buster” Wortman. Gruender’s association with these gangsters continued long after his parole. The housepainter soon introduced his young stepson to the underworld, taking Maloney with him on occasional visits to the Paddock Lounge, Wortman’s bar in East St. Louis, which was a hangout for organized crime figures. Maloney also tagged along when his stepfather drove to Jefferson City to visit a friend still incarcerated at the penitentiary. Though he avoided further trouble with the law, Gruender acted as a courier for Wortman.

In 1952 the family moved to a farm in New Florence, Mo., a small town 65 miles west of St. Louis. Gruender used carpentry skills acquired in prison to rehab the old farmhouse, and he showered Maloney with gifts, including a motorcycle and a shotgun. Beneath the outward generosity, however, Gruender was an angry and hardened man who drank heavily and sometimes abused his wife and stepson.

The Road to Perdition

On Dec. 19, 1945, at the age of 14, Maloney ran away from home for the first time.
“I was prepared,” Maloney recalled later. “ I had another change of clothes, a pound of fudge, a loaf of bread, 14 silver dollars, and my old man’s .38 was buried in the bottom of the sack.” Despite his preparations, Maloney was quickly apprehended after stealing a car and spent the night in the Montgomery County Jail. The judge put him on probation.

The next year, Maloney ran away again. This time he made it as far as Hannibal before crashing a stolen car. The second incident earned him his first stint in the reformatory at Boonville.

After his fourth escape from Boonville, juvenile authorities transferred him to Algoa, the state’s intermediate reformatory, where his behavior worsened. Over the next year and a half, Maloney was put in solitary confinement dozens of times for attempting to escape, instigating a riot and other infractions. During a short parole in 1957, Maloney was arrested in Kansas City on suspicion of burglary and carrying a concealed weapon.

Despite his abominable record, the state had little choice but to parole him in January 1959, a few months after he turned 18. Maloney then married a former inmate of the girls’ reformatory at Chillicothe, and they moved to Alabama—but the marriage fell apart. After his return to Missouri, his parole officer committed Maloney to State Hospital No. 1 in Fulton for psychiatric observation. While confined at the hospital, Maloney met and fell in love with a fellow patient, 16-year-old Edith Rhodes, who had been transferred from Chillicothe.

“Only in an institution can love hit that hard and that fast,” Maloney wrote. “Edith was a strangely magnetic girl. … She seemed fragile and shy, yet she wasn’t. She was 16 and insisted she would commit suicide before she was 21, because she had a fear of not being beautiful. …”

After six weeks of observation at Fulton, Maloney was allowed by the parole board to enlist in the Army. He was assigned to the Army Signal Corps School at Fort Gordon, Ga. His military career lasted just three months: He went AWOL on Nov. 3, 1959.

While absent without leave, Maloney worked briefly for a carnival in Florida before returning to Missouri. On the evening of Dec. 11, he picked up Rhodes in Columbia at an apartment she was sharing with another girl. The two returned to St. Louis early the next morning on a Greyhound bus. They registered at the St. Francis Hotel, at Sixth and Chestnut, under the name Mr. and Mrs. John Ducharme of Jacksonville, Fla. That evening Maloney, armed with a hunting knife, robbed the clerk at another downtown hotel.

The couple then took a cab to the Soulard neighborhood in South St. Louis. Shortly before 8 p.m., Maloney dropped Rhodes off at the apartment of an acquaintance, then walked to a nearby confectionery, located at 1100 Lami Ave. Entering the store, he pulled a hunting knife and demanded money from Joseph F. Thiemann, the 74-year-old store owner.

“When he made the demand for money, he and Thiemann began struggling,” according to the confession Maloney later gave St. Louis police. After Maloney punched Thiemann in the face several times, the old man agreed to hand over the cash. “Thiemann then reached into his back pocket as if to get the money and came out with a revolver and fired one shot, which apparently went over his [Maloney’s] head.” Maloney reacted by stabbing the storeowner in the stomach. In the ensuing fight, the pistol fired a second time, striking Thiemann in the leg. Maloney then wrested the gun from his victim and fled. Thiemann died as a result of the wounds he sustained in the fracas.

Less than two months later, Maloney pleaded guilty to murder and armed robbery, and Circuit Judge James F. Nangle sentenced him to four concurrent life sentences. He would serve the next 13 years at the Missouri Penitentiary, in Jefferson City—arguably the worst prison in the United States at the time.

Inside the Walls

“When I went to the Missouri Penitentiary at Jefferson City, in February 1960, there were 2,500 men inside ‘the walls,’” Maloney later told readers of the Kansas City Star. “The white convicts slept three to a cell (except for several hundred in one-man cells). The blacks slept as many as eight to a cell. “Stabbings and killings, robberies and rapes were common. Dope was easier to get in prison than it was on the streets. There were men in prison who were said to make more money each year from dope and gambling than the warden was paid. There were captains on the guard force who owed their souls to certain convicts.

“You never knew whom you might have trouble with. The reasons for murder and mayhem made little sense to anyone except the convicts. So hundreds of men carried a knife or had one they could get to one in an emergency.

“If you are young and good looking, you can count on being confronted again and again. If you have money, there will be people who want it. If you are helpless, there are people who will try to make a reputation at your expense. Or you may simply say the wrong thing to the wrong person.

“You never know for sure what is going to happen from day to day in prison. …”
A prison psychiatrist who evaluated Maloney shortly after his arrival characterized him as a “socially diffident individual … who seems to take a half-humorous rejection of the whole affair.” If Maloney’s initial demeanor seemed inappropriately aloof given the circumstances, it didn’t take long for his mood to turn into a malevolent rage.

On Aug. 26, 1961, Maloney’s girlfriend, Edith Rhodes, was murdered near Huzzah Creek in rural Crawford County, Mo. She had eloped from the state mental hospital in Fulton and gone on another crime spree, this time with a 22-year-old hoodlum from Flat River. David Moyer, who confessed to the slaying, first told authorities that the girl shot herself and he had fired a second shot to end her pain. A sheriff’s posse pursuing the fugitives heard the shots and found Moyer lying next to the body.

On hearing the bad news, Maloney vowed to kill Moyer and tried to escape. His prison record over the next few years is a litany of major conduct violation:. In addition to the failed escape attempt, the prison administration cited Maloney for stabbing another inmate, manufacturing zip guns, using stimulants and committing sodomy. As a result, he was put in solitary four times and sentenced to the “hole” another 18 or 20 times. Solitary confinement involved long-term segregation, whereas the hole was a short-term punishment, usually a 10-day stint, during which prisoners were deprived of cigarettes, bedding and sometimes clothing.

Freed by Verse

Maloney had reached his nadir. By any measure, he had to be considered beyond salvation, a lost cause. But his mother remained faithful: She never gave up. She corresponded. She visited. She sent money, clothing, food, stamps and other items. She also acted as Maloney’s liaison with the outside world.

Through her encouragement, elderly attorney Mable Hinkley began to correspond with Maloney. Hinkley, a former St. Louis Globe-Democrat Woman of the Year, was an early advocate of prison reform and used her social standing to influence decisions of the Missouri Department of Corrections. Maloney had been in solitary confinement for nearly four months after his escape attempt when Hinkley contacted him.

In her first letter, Hinkley advised Maloney to seek divine guidance, but she also offered him a more down-to-earth deal. “Your mother tells me that if you give your promise to do something, you keep your word,” Hinkley wrote. “Will you make a promise (and keep it) not to try and run away—to obey the rules of the prison and try to do whatever work is assigned to you? If you will make these promises, I will ask the warden to take you out of solitary confinement.”

She kept her end of the bargain. In June 1964, at Hinkley’s urging, Warden E.V. Nash released Maloney from solitary and assigned him to the newly formed prison art class.

Exposure to art ignited Maloney’s innate creative streak. Sam Reese, an older convict who had gained national recognition for his oil paintings and cartoons, served as his role model. Maloney’s own artwork took awards at state and county fairs and was exhibited at a gallery in Paris.

But Maloney became more devoted to writing as he matured.

“Joe, which is what his friends called him, and I shared a cell in C-Hall during 1965-66,” recalls former inmate Frank Driscoll. “We worked on the fifth floor of the prison hospital, which is to say the psych ward. … By the time we were cellies, Joe had straightened up his act and was staying out of trouble, working on his parole. That, of course, was back in the day, when a lifer could still aspire to being released on parole. He was always writing something—stories, critiques, opinion pieces and, yes, poetry.”

Maloney had no way of knowing the significance that his verse would ultimately play in redirecting his life.

“I did what all young poets do, I tried to write a nice little rhyming solution to all the problems of the universe,” he later wrote. “Having written it, my next problem was deciding where to send it. In those days the Kansas City Star printed a poem on the editorial page every day, so I mailed the poem to the Star. A few days later I received a letter from Thorpe Menn, literary editor of the Star, who rejected the poem but said he liked the last four lines. He encouraged me to keep working on the poem, and asked me to stay in touch with him. I was impressed that the literary editor of a famous newspaper would write to me. I was even more impressed that he did not ask why I was in prison, or for how long. He wrote to me as if I were just another person, another young writer.”

It was the beginning of a long-term relationship carried out by correspondence. Menn became his mentor, giving guidance and critiquing his poetry and prose. Maloney worked on his writing for as much as six hours every evening. Menn patiently waited until 1967 before publishing one of Maloney’s poems in the Star. By then, the prison-bound poet and writer had been published in numerous other venues, including Focus/Midwest, a St. Louis–based magazine founded by Charles Klotzer, publisher of the Saint Louis Journalism Review.

Maloney expanded his connections in the literary world, writing to such luminaries as R. Buckminster Fuller, John D. MacDonald, William Buckley and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. At Menn’s suggestion, he started writing book reviews for the Star. He also worked diligently to establish a national writers’ association for prisoners. Meanwhile, Menn had interested Random House in publishing a book of Maloney’s poetry. In late 1967, the parole board indicated the possibility of Maloney’s being released early the next year.

But as quickly as his cell door seemed to have started to creak open, the steel bars slammed shut again. Warden Nash committed suicide. His replacement, Harold R. Swenson, imposed extreme restrictions on all communications with editors and publishers to stop a book from being published by another prisoner, a notorious escapee.

As a result, Maloney’s letters to Menn started coming back undelivered. Moreover, correspondence regarding his book of poetry had to be routed through his mother. The delays in communications eventually killed his deal with Random House. Books sent to him for review were screened by the prison administration and sometimes rejected.
Instead of zip guns or knives, Maloney fought back with the law as his weapon.

He filed suit against the Department of Corrections, arguing that his constitutional rights under the First Amendment had been violated. His defiance dashed his hopes of gaining parole and put him at odds with the prison administration for the remainder of his sentence.

Five more years would elapse before Maloney finally made parole, during which time Menn continued to support and encourage his writing. The literary editor was with Maloney’s mother on Sept. 25, 1972, when Maloney walked out of prison for the last time. They drove to Kansas City together and toured the Star’s editorial offices. The next day, Maloney returned to the newsroom not as a guest but as an employee.

Natural-Born Reporter

In advance of his release, Tom Eblen, then the Star’s city editor, had written a letter to Maloney, offering him a three-month contract at a monthly salary of $550. Despite the low wages, the offer was priceless because it cinched his parole. Star reporter Harry Jones Jr. had hatched the idea of hiring him as a temporary “consultant” for an in-depth series of stories on prison systems in Missouri and Kansas. Menn then sold the proposal to Cruise Palmer, the executive editor.

Maloney’s good fortune was twofold: He had belatedly benefited from the prison-reform movement of the 1960s and also from the unique ownership structure of the Kansas City Star, then employee-owned. On his death, in 1915, the founder of the paper, William Rockhill Nelson, had willed the Star to his employees. That arrangement was still in place in 1972. This meant that senior editorial staffers such as Menn, who had accumulated large stock holdings in the company, could negotiate with management on a more even level.

Jones and Maloney collaborated for months on the prison project, sharing the reporting and writing duties. Their stories ran as a four-part series in April 1973.

“We visited every institution of correction for adults and juveniles in both Missouri and Kansas, plus Leavenworth and Marion in Illinois, which at the time was the Alcatraz of the [federal] system,” says Jones. … “He proved to be an invaluable ally. When we would go in together to interview somebody, a prisoner or the warden or the guards, we’d start off and they would be talking one way and the minute they found out about Joe—and what his background was—it was like administering truth serum. All of a sudden their stories would change. It was uncanny.”

In the first installment of the series, Maloney gave a lengthy first-person account of life inside the Walls in Jefferson City. Before his contract expired, the Star hired him as a full-time general-assignment reporter. The prison series later won the Silver Gavel Award from the American Bar Association.

Maloney excelled as a feature writer but eventually became better known as an investigative journalist covering a wide range of issues, including labor racketeering, white-collar crime, drug trafficking and mental health.

In 1975, Maloney and Jones teamed up again to cover the corruption and violence surrounding a power struggle among factions of the Kansas City Mafia. Competing mob interests were in the midst of fighting for control of the River Quay entertainment district.

The two reporters began knocking on doors, talking to area business owners. They also interviewed city and federal law-enforcement authorities and pumped confidential sources for information. By checking liquor-license applications, Maloney determined that mobsters or their relatives secretly owned several restaurants and bars in the River Quay.

Maloney frequented the mob hangouts at night to develop leads. On one occasion Jones accompanied him to the Three Little Pigs, an after-hours café that was a favorite of the Mafia. “All the hoods would congregate there, drinking coffee,” recalls Jones. “We just went in there one night to sit and watch. Talk about stares. I was glad to get out of there.” Before they departed, Jones overheard the bodyguard to Carl “Corky” Civella threaten to rape Maloney. If the remark bothered Maloney, he didn’t show it.

“He was kind of fearless,” says Jones. “I was impressed. He was a gutsy little guy. He had seen his share of bloodshed. It was curious, too, how they seemed to hate Joe more than me, although our names appeared together on stories. But the mob kind of looked at Joe as a turncoat. Having been a convict, they thought he should have respected their trade a little more than he did.”

In a sense, Maloney did respect their trade. He had learned about it from his mobbed-up stepfather. Maloney added to his underworld knowledge in prison, where he befriended fellow inmate John Paul Spica, a St. Louis Mafia soldier. More important, Maloney understood that the roots of the problem ran deep in the Kansas City political establishment and business community and that there was a kind of mass denial regarding corruption.

“In the mid-’70s, some Star editors were even reluctant to print the word ‘Mafia,’” Maloney later wrote. Maloney was also keenly aware that local law-enforcement officials were hesitant to use the M-word.

“This was the town of Tom Pendergast, one of the most powerful Mafia/machine bosses in U.S. history,” Maloney wrote. “Pendergast was long gone, but his machine was anchored in place. The mob continued to influence the police department, city hall, the county courthouse and the state legislature. … The Kansas City Mafia wielded considerable economic clout—controlling several banks [and] owning ten percent or more of the taverns and nightclubs in the city. …” Its far-flung empire stretched all the way to Las Vegas, where the KC mob oversaw the skimming of millions of dollars from casinos.

But back in Kansas City, a rift had developed among three branches of the local mob: the Cammisano, Spero and Bonadonna clans. Maloney sensed that the feud was about to erupt into open warfare.

At the same time, dissension was brewing in the newsroom. Maloney argued that the Star should immediately expose the Mafia’s infiltration of the River Quay. His editors opposed the idea. They preferred a more cautious approach, advising that the coverage be focused more indirectly on corruption inside the city’s liquor-control agency. Jones agreed with them.

“I remember telling him, ‘Joe, let’s just wait until they start killing each other,’” says Jones. “It didn’t take very long for that to happen. People started dying. People [were] shot and blown up.”

In July 1976, David Bonadonna, the father of Fred Bonadonna, owner of Poor Freddie’s restaurant in the River Quay, became the first victim. He was found shot to death and stuffed into the trunk of his car. Three River Quay nightclubs were soon torched or bombed, and the list of gangland hits rapidly grew. Over the next two years, eight more mob-related murders would go down before the violence subsided.

Because of their advance legwork, Maloney, Jones and staff reporters Bill Norton and Joe Henderson uncovered developments in the midst of the mayhem sometimes before federal and local law-enforcement authorities.
At one point Joe Cammisano called Maloney and said: “Mr. Maloney, I realize you have a job to do—but do you have to be so intense?”

After the Star ran a story implicating Cammisano’s brother William “Willie the Rat” Cammisano in the Bonadonna slaying, members of the two families demanded to rebut the allegation, which was based on an FBI affidavit. At a tape-recorded meeting held in the Star’s conference room, Fred Bonadonna refuted any possibility that Willie Cammisano had had anything to do with the death of his father. The Star published a verbatim transcript of his claims in its next edition.

“The next day I called Bonadonna,” Maloney recalled later. “I asked him if he’d read the story, and if it had helped him any. He said, ‘You’ve saved my life, for the time being, anyway.’”

Bonadonna was one of Maloney’s confidential sources. He had publicly refuted the Star’s story simply to keep from being killed. In subsequent tape-recorded telephone interviews with Maloney, Bonadonna said that the Mafia had also targeted him for execution. Bonadonna disappeared in 1978, presumably into the federal witness-protection program. The same year, Maloney’s byline disappeared from the pages of the Star when he quit the paper in a dispute over overtime pay. By then the Star had been bought by Capital Cities, a media chain with a history of poor labor relations. In the wake of the mob violence, the River Quay was all but abandoned, with only six liquor licenses remaining in the district, down from 28 a few years earlier.

Maloney ended up moving to the West Coast. He reported for the Orange County Register in 1980 and 1981. While at the Register, he covered a series of murders attributed to the “Freeway Killer,” a name of his invention. He also published two autobiographical crime novels. The first, I Speak for the Dead, is a fictionalized account of Kansas City’s mob war, drawn straight form his clip file. His second novel, The Chain, is based on his years behind bars, including his incarceration at the Missouri Penitentiary and the old St. Louis City Jail.

Maloney moved back to Kansas City, perhaps drawn by memories of his glory days. In later years he worked as a freelance writer and as an editor for the alternative press. He pitched various book proposals and collaborated on at least three different screenplay adaptations of his first novel, but none of the projects came to fruition. In the late 1990s, shortly before his death, he established a Web site,, which is maintained by his friend J. Patrick O’Connor, former owner of the New Times, a now-defunct alternative weekly in Kansas City.

“He had his demons,” says Mike Fancher, an editor who worked closely with Maloney, “but I know that for the time that he worked for the Star he did some absolutely amazing work that I don’t think any other journalist could have possibly done.”

C.D. Stelzer, a St. Louis-based freelance writer, is working on a biography of the late J.J. Maloney.

The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Forget Hollywood — the true story of the fabled relic, and its owners, is weirder than fiction first published in Illinois Times, June 11, 2008

Bill Homann and the Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull.

Bill Homann and the Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull. Photo by Alison Carrick.

Do you feel the love?” asks Bill Homann. He is sitting in an easy chair in the living room of his modest suburban tract home in Valparaiso, Ind.

On a nearby coffee table, the Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull is resting on a towel. The skull appears strangely luminous, reflecting a piercing blue-white light from its eye sockets. “There’s some part of the brain it activates,” Homann says. “The skull is very special, and it has a very special vibration.”

That vibration has surged into mainstream consciousness lately, thanks to references to the skull in this summer’s blockbuster Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Homann has been a denizen of that kingdom for much of his life. He first heard of British explorer F.A. Mitchell-Hedges and his fabled crystal skull in Panama in 1968, while on duty in the Air Force.

Since then the skull has become an icon of the New Age movement, attracting devotees who attribute supernatural powers to the object. Homann says he became curious about the skull after seeing photographs of it. In 1981, he contacted its elderly owner, Anna Mitchell-Hedges, the late explorer’s adopted daughter, who then lived in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. “I just called up there one day and said I’d like to see it, and she said,‘Well, come on up,’ ” Homann recalls, “so I hopped up and drove to Canada.”

It was the beginning of a friendship that would last more than a quarter-century. “For years after that I’d come up to see her probably three or four times a year,” Homann says. In 1996, he accompanied Anna to Belize so she could revisit the archaeological site where she said she discovered the crystal skull in the 1920s while on expedition with her father.

Homann returned to the location earlier this year to play a role in a Sci-Fi Channel documentary, Mysteries of the Crystal Skull, that aired in prime time last month. The two-hour special cast him as a real-life Indiana Jones in search of an undiscovered crystal skull. His quest took him scuba diving, spelunking, and on a trek to an ancient Mayan ruins. NBC News weekend anchorman Lester Holt served as narrator, even going so far as to provide commentary in the water after diving with Homann in search of the missing skull.

In between action sequences, a parade of self-professed experts ruminated over the significance of crystal skulls, connecting them to everything from Mayan apocalyptic prophecies to the origins of the lost continent of Atlantis.

Homann, a grandmaster karate instructor, gained his newfound fame after inheriting the Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull from Anna last year after her death at 100 years of age. During the last eight years of her life, Anna — a former beautician and motel operator — lived in Chesterton, Ind., and relied on Homann as her primary caregiver.

Porter County, Ind., records indicate that Homann married Anna on July 9, 2002, when she was 92 years old. Homann, nearly 40 years younger than his late wife, is reluctant to talk about their marriage. He prefers to refer to Anna as his mentor and spiritual leader. Though the terms of her estate have not been finalized, he remains in possession of the crystal skull.  

“She taught me how to take care of the skull,” Homann says, whose tousled brown hair and mustache give him a youthful appearance. “She knew I would take care of it with every ounce of strength I had.” Homann looks to his late father-in-law, not Indiana Jones, for inspiration. “He’s probably one of the greatest people who nobody knows about,” Homann says. “Mitchell-Hedges said that a life without adventure is a life without living.” Homann has taken those words to heart. His business card describes him as an explorer and adventurer.

When Frederick Albert Mitchell-Hedges was born, in Buckinghamshire, England, in 1882, his father, a Victorian banker, expected him to follow in his footsteps. But Mike, as he was called, took a different path. He grew up reading the novels of H. Rider Haggard, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Arthur Conan Doyle and yearned for adventure in faraway places.
He departed for North America at 18 years of age. In Montreal, Mitchell-Hedges chanced upon a wealthy Canadian stockbroker, who introduced him to a New York trader. Soon Mitchell-Hedges found himself keeping the company of Wall Street barons, playing the stock market by day and high-stakes poker at night.
He returned to England in 1906 and married Lilian “Dolly” Clarke. Though the marriage was never dissolved, Mitchell-Hedges confessed to his lax martial commitment in Danger My Ally, an autobiography published in 1954, five years before he died. “I must certainly be among the leading contenders for the title of ‘The Worst Husband in the World,’ ” he wrote. “During the years I have come and gone on my own affairs, racing around the world . . . Dolly was always there, patiently waiting.”

Jim Honey, who collaborated with Anna on the 1995 reissue of the book, contends that Mitchell-Hedges’ wife may have been busy with her own affairs during her husband’s long absences. “Anna told me that they were man and wife in name only,” says Honey, “and that Lilian had actually been the mistress of one of his wealthier friends.”

In any event, Mitchell-Hedges pursued a business career in England for seven years, ultimately losing a fortune in a dodgy business deal. Down on his luck, he returned to America, leaving his wife in a country cottage with just 300 pounds. In New York, he worked for a diamond merchant before heading south, hoping to reach Central America.

During this period, Mitchell-Hedges claimed, he worked as a cowboy in Texas and a waiter at a restaurant in New Orleans. When low wages stalled his travel plans, he resorted to gambling, outwitting a crooked croupier at a casino in rural Louisiana. Crossing the Mexican border in November 1913, he was captured by Mexican revolutionaries fighting under bandit Pancho Villa and presumed to be an American spy. He avoided the firing squad, according to his autobiography, by belting out an off-key rendition of “God Save the King.”

Instead of freeing the British subject, however, Villa ordered Mitchell-Hedges to fight for his cause. Mitchell-Hedges wrote that for the next 10 months he participated in border skirmishes; he was released only after being wounded twice in the leg.

After the British military exempted him from duty in World War I, Mitchell-Hedges returned to New York in 1917, where he briefly shared an apartment with a disheveled Russian journalist named Bronstein. Two years later, an official of the British secret service informed Mitchell-Hedges that his former roommate had been Bolshevik Leon Trotsky.

The intelligence officer implored him to go to Russia and spy on Trotsky, who by then was a leader of the Russian Revolution. Mitchell-Hedges declined the offer, according to his autobiography. But Honey challenges that account. He argues that Mitchell-Hedges was recruited by the British secret service and sent to New York to spy on his rich American friends.

Another theory holds that Mitchell-Hedges was already a British agent when he encountered Villa in Mexico. There is even conjecture that he collaborated in his espionage efforts with American journalist Ambrose Bierce, who disappeared in northern Mexico in late 1913, after reportedly joining up with Villa. According to this bizarre tale, Villa presented the crystal skull to Mitchell-Hedges as a reward for his services.

“There are a lot of things in Danger My Ally he doesn’t say,” says Honey. Those omissions may include the circumstances surrounding the adoption of Anna. Mitchell-Hedges wrote that he informally adopted Anne Marie Le Guillon, a 10-year-old orphan, at the urging of two Americans business associates while visiting Port Colborne, Ontario, in 1917.

Honey scoffs at that scenario. “[Anna] told me that Mitchell-Hedges met her mother in France, while she was staying [with her uncle], who happened to have an antique shop.” The meeting had occurred, Honey says, while the Frenchwoman’s husband was working in Canada, saving money to bring over his wife and family. “Anna was born seven months after her mother arrived in Canada,” says Honey, who says the evidence suggests that Mitchell-Hedges was Anna’s actual father.

There were other dalliances as well. In 1938, Dorothy Copp, an American socialite, sued Mitchell-Hedges for divorce even though he was still married in England. Rumors also circulated about his relationship with Jane Houlson Harvey, his young secretary. His most notorious affair was a six-year relationship with Lady Richmond Brown, which led to her 1931 divorce.

Richmond Brown financed and took part in Mitchell-Hedges’ first two expeditions to British Honduras (now Belize), which were focused on the exploration of Lubaantun, an ancient Mayan ruins. The British adventurer believed that his explorations would ultimately prove a link between the ancient Mayan civilization and a mythological lost continent, or Atlantis.

In British Honduras, colonial authorities granted his party exclusive rights to excavate Lubaantun and the adjoining 70-square miles of tropical wilderness. Employing local tribesmen, Mitchell-Hedges’ team slashed and burned a swath of rainforest to uncover an ancient city of six square miles, including an elevated citadel, stone pyramids, terraces, ball courts, burial mounds, and an amphitheater.

The excavations yielded more than 1,000 artifacts, including pottery and figurines, which the British Museum and the Museum of the American Indian in New York received in return for their support of the project. But there were no contemporaneous reports of the crystal skull’s being discovered at Lubaantun.

In his autobiography, Mitchell-Hedges mentions that “Sammy,” his nickname for his adopted daughter, accompanied him on his final expedition, in 1926 and 1927. Anna herself affirmed in a 1968 letter to an art conservator who was then studying the object that she had found the skull during that period. But then she changed her story.

Photo by Alison Carrick

Photo by Alison Carrick


According to Anna’s later version, she discovered the skull at Lubaantun on her 17th birthday, Jan. 1, 1924. “She was told never to go on top of this one pyramid because the rocks were so loose,” Homann says, “but she heard if you got on top of it, you could see the sea. When everybody [else] was taking a siesta in the middle of the afternoon, her and a couple of Mayan kids climbed up on top of it. The sun was just right and it hit the top of the skull and she saw a light in there.”

After he reprimanded Anna for her disobedience, Mitchell-Hedges became curious about her discovery and began excavating the ruins stone by stone, an arduous task that supposedly took months to accomplish.

Anna stuck to this final story until she died last year. She repeated it to a reporter for The Record, a newspaper in Kitchener, as recently as 2005. In that account, she described descending through a narrow passage to retrieve the skull: “They lowered me by two ropes,” she said. “They put towels under the ropes so they wouldn’t hurt me. I was so terrified — there were scorpions and other awful things down there. I saw the skull, picked it up, stuffed it in my shirt and they pulled me out.”

Much to her chagrin, her father promptly gave the crystal skull to the local Mayan priest. A few months later, a Mayan boy found the skull’s missing detachable jawbone. In her revised version, the priest returned the skull to Mitchell-Hedges during the 1926-1927 expedition out of gratitude for supplies and medical assistance he provided to the tribe.

The problem with Anna’s story is there is no way to confirm it. None of the other expedition members reported the find. Moreover, there are no known photographs of her with her father at Lubaantun. Mitchell-Hedges himself didn’t mention the crystal skull until 1954, when he published his autobiography. Even then, he did not indicate that Anna found the skull. Instead, he cryptically commented: “How it came into my possession I have reason for not revealing.”

In his typically hyperbolic manner, Mitchell-Hedges referred to the artifact as the Skull of Doom. “It is at least 3,600 years old and according to legend used by the High Priest of the Maya when performing esoteric rites,” wrote Mitchell-Hedges. “It is said that when he willed death with the skull, death invariably followed. It has been described as the embodiment of evil.”

Archaeologist Jane MacClaren Walsh of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C., asserts that the Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull is far more modern and less lethal. “I am fairly certain that the skull was made in the early 20th century, with high-speed lapidary tools,” says Walsh, who analyzed it last November. “We found tool marks left by high-speed diamond-coated rotary cutting tools, which would not have been available to pre-Columbian carvers. There are a number of skulls that have been carved in Europe and in Mexico that are quite similar to the Mitchell-Hedges skull, and there is no mystery about how they were carved. I don’t know of any scientific evidence that quartz [crystal] is imbued with special powers, certainly not supernatural powers.”

A clue to the provenance of the Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull appears in a July 1936 article published in Man, a British anthropological journal. One of the two skulls that were analyzed came from the collection of the British Museum; the other artifact was cited to as being “in the possession of Mr. Sydney Burney,” a London art dealer. In late 1943, Burney is reported to have put the skull up for auction at Sotheby’s, the famed London auction house. The bidding, however, failed to meet Burney’s asking price.

A year later he sold the artifact to Mitchell-Hedges for 400 pounds, according to a note in the files of the British Museum. Anna explained this discrepancy by saying that her father had loaned the skull to Burney to help finance one of his Central American expeditions.  In 2005, she told the Kitchener, Ontario, Record: “My father was livid when he saw the ad in the paper for that auction.” Anna claimed that Mitchell-Hedges quickly bought the skull back.

In the latest issue of Archeology magazine, Walsh describes the Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull as “a veritable copy of the British Museum skull, with stylistic and technical flourishes that only an accomplished faker would devise.” The two skulls are nearly identical in shape, size, weight, and clarity of the quartz. The main difference is that the teeth of the British Museum artifact are etched into the crystal, whereas the Mitchell-Hedges skull has a detachable mandible and its choppers are carved in precise anatomical fashion.

Homann dismisses Walsh’s opinion. He notes that there is no accurate way to judge the age of quartz sculpture. This leaves the origin of the artifact shrouded in uncertainty, he says, adding that the tool marks Walsh found had already been discovered in previous tests conducted at Hewlett-Packard laboratories in Santa Clara, Calif., in late 1970.

“They found more mystery than not,” Homann says of the most recent analysis of the skull by the Smithsonian. “The Mitchell-Hedges skull is an enigma,” he says. “People say this and people say that — but when it really comes down to it, how it really got here is a mystery. Somebody made this. How they did it nobody knows.”

From 1964 to 1970, Anna loaned the skull to Frank Dorland, a San Francisco-based art conservator. Dorland took numerous castings of the skull and examined them under a microscope. His other contributions were less scientific.

He speculated that the Mitchell-Hedges skull would have taken 300 years to carve by hand and that it might date back to ancient Egypt, Babylon, or Tibet. Dorland also reported witnessing paranormal phenomena that he attributed to the skull. “The first time I kept the skull in my home overnight . . . I was awakened by unusual noises in the house,” Dorland told Richard Garvin, author of The Crystal Skull. “It sounded like a large jungle cat was prowling through the house, accompanied by the sound of chimes and bells. When we got up the next morning, our possessions were strewn all about the house. Yet, all the doors and windows were still closed and locked from the inside.”

At Dorland’s urging, scientists at Hewlett-Packard determined that the detachable jawbone and the cranium were cut from the same block of quartz, but the experts couldn’t determine exactly how the skull was created.

Regardless of the findings, Anna apparently became upset when she heard that Dorland had arranged for the skull to undergo laboratory testing without her permission. According to Garvin’s account, she rode a Greyhound bus to California to retrieve the skull and return it to Kitchener, where she then owned and operated a motel.

In the years that followed, a stream of pilgrims visited Anna and the crystal skull in Kitchener, including actors Peter O’Toole, Shirley MacLaine, and William Shatner.

Carol Davis, a Canadian psychic, added to the lore of the Mitchell-Hedges skull by purportedly channeling its message to the world. In one session, Davis began emitting a high-pitched hum after allegedly tuning in to the skull’s transmitting frequency. She then began speaking in a strange staccato voice: “You seek to know the origins of this receptacle, which you call the crystal skull,” she said. “I tell you that it was made, many, many thousands of years ago by beings of a higher intelligence. It was formed by a civilization which existed before those you call the Maya. This receptacle contains the minds of many and minds of one. It was not made using what you call the physical. . . . It was molded into its present form by thought.”

The Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull has not always been cast in such a glowing light. In 1962, Anna implied that the skull was more burden than blessing. “Sometimes I am sorry I did not inter the skull with my father as he wished,” she told Fate magazine. “I think that may have been the best place for it. It is a thing of evil in the wrong hands. . . . I believe that anyone can will another to death through the Skull of Doom. When I sell it, I want it rather to go to a museum or something like that where it can do no harm to anyone.”

But in later years Anna changed her mind. In the 2005 interview, she attributed her longevity to the skull. “I take care of it,” she said, “and it takes care of me.” She also pooh-poohed the idea of institutionalizing the talisman. “It’s not for a museum,” she said. “It’s for someone kind, who has done a lot of good . . . who will do what I did with the skull. At the time, she intimated that the skull would go to Homann on her death.

Since being passed the mantle, Homann has continued to accentuate the positive, referring to the artifact as the Skull of Love. According to its new keeper, the skull possesses the power to open “the heart chakra of man to a universal consciousness of love that goes between all things, all humans, all mineral life, all animal life, realizing that we’re all connected, and all one.”


Good vibrations, however, have not been enough to prevent a court battle over the skull.

As her spouse, Homann is entitled to full ownership of the Chesterton, Ind., residence he held jointly with Anna, but the rights to her other assets — including the crystal skull — are being contested in probate court in Porter County, Ind. Under the terms of the will she signed in Canada on April 4, 2001, Anna bequeathed her estate to a dozen family members, mainly nieces and nephews who live in Ontario. Her holdings include many other objets d’art from the collection of her father. Besides the skull, they include a mirror allegedly owned by Marie Antoinette and a goblet that supposedly dates back to the era of England’s King Henry VIII.

Citing state law, Homann has filed a claim for half of his late wife’s heirlooms. “When Anna died, the only assets she had in her name alone was this long list of artifacts,” says Richard J. Rupcich, the Valparaiso attorney who is representing Anna’s Canadian family members. “The skull is the one with the most notoriety, but it might not even be the one that’s worth the most. The appraiser who appraised it — and it is in the court’s records — says it’s worth $3,000.”

On the other hand, Rupcich reckons that the skull could fetch millions, judging from the publicity it received in the Indiana Jones film and because of its sacred status among true believers. The skull is also valuable because it could generate income through public and private exhibitions or sponsorships.

“It’s hard to find a market value for a [crystal] skull,” Rupcich says. “It’s not like you can go out and list a house based on comparables in the neighborhood. There aren’t a lot of skulls around. It makes it difficult to appraise the value of these things — so who knows what it is worth?”

To its current keeper, however, the skull is priceless. “It could be worth a dollar or a billion dollars, but the thing is, it’s not to be sold,” says Homann. “It’s Mitchell-Hedges’ wish that it is only to be given to the right person to carry on this work that it’s supposed to do.”

Because of the approaching end of the Mayan calendar, on Dec. 21, 2012, Homann believes that it is critical for him to retain guardianship of the skull. His concerns are based loosely on a 19th-century German translation of a Mayan sacred text known as the Dresden Codex, which prophesies that 13 Mayan crystal skulls must be united before that date to avert a cataclysm of global proportions.

“There are people who really believe this stuff,” says Rupcich. “To me, it’s scary.” Despite his skepticism, the attorney does not question Homann’s sincerity. “I think actually he’s a pretty good guy. . . . I don’t think he’s a con man.”

In court filings, Homann never refers to himself as the owner of the crystal skull. Instead, he calls himself its “caretaker” or “keeper.” He declines to talk about his 2002 marriage to Anna, other than to say that the nuptials were performed so Anna, a Canadian citizen, could qualify for health-insurance coverage in Indiana.

In the event of his death, Homann has indicated that custodianship of the skull should pass to his son Brett, who runs the family-owned karate school in Crown Point, Ind. Rupcich doesn’t know when the probate case will be settled or whether the crystal skull will ultimately be sold off by order of the court.

Until the estate is settled or the predicted apocalypse occurs, Homann plans to dutifully protect the crystal skull and continue to promote its alleged mystical powers. As a part of his efforts, he wants to help build a cultural center in Belize to preserve the customs and language of the Mayans.

Last month, he says, he traveled to the Cannes Film Festival with the crystal skull and had a tête-à-tête on a luxury yacht with the French finance minister to discuss some of these issues.

This month, he is scheduled to confer with Hopi and Mayan spiritual leaders in Sedona, Ariz. “I’m finding that, by following in what I believe in, things are falling into place,” Homann says. “It’s just like opening up the doors. I’m just going with where it goes. I’m going to follow that adventure and exploration and myself and the world.

“It’s fun, too.”